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Joel McKinnon Miller

More than a decade ago, Joel McKinnon Miller got a flattop haircut, and its been one of his trademarks ever since.

HBO actor returns to UMD

After 20 years away, Joel McKinnon Miller received his theatre degree this spring

By Cheryl Reitan

July 3, 2007

Joel McKinnon Miller, recent University of Minnesota, Duluth alumnus and central cast member on HBO's new hit show "Big Love," is revisiting campus after a gap of more than 20 years. He left UMD lacking two classes for his degree. His circuitous route back to UMD took him around the country with a touring company performing Shakespeare, and then propelled him into television and film. In May 2007, Miller received his bachelor of fine arts degree in theatre.

A start at UMD

Miller's acting career began at UMD. During the summer theatre productions of 1980 he had the lead in South Pacific, he played Teddy in Arsenic and Old Lace, had a part in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and acted in the premiere of an avant-garde play by a Finnish playwright.

"All that stuff in the summer made me a versatile actor," says Miller. "It was great experience."

He returned to UMD theatre in 1981 taking on the lead in Roar of the Greasepaint--the Smell of the Crowd and playing Sir Lionel in Camelot. "My fondest memory of UMD was during that summer because that's when I met my wife," he says. Miller's wife, Tammy McKinnon, a native Duluthian, had come up to UMD from the Twin Cities campus to work in the costume shop.

Traveling theatre

Two classes shy of his degree, Miller took on short stints at the Minnesota Opera and Children's Theatre Minneapolis. When Miller heard that The American National Theatre and Academy was interviewing for actors in Vermillion, South Dakota, he made his way to the auditions and landed a part.

The academy was the "minor league" team for John Houseman's The Acting Company, a classical theatre company out of New York, which launched the likes of Kevin Kline and Patty LuPone.

With a year's tour under his belt, Miller auditioned for The Acting Company. "It was in the actor's equity union and that meant a decent salary," he says. His wife landed a spot on the wig-and-wardrobe team. In May 1983, they married, and in July, the Millers launched three years of traveling together by bus.

Get me off the bus

At the end of their third season on the road, The Acting Company performed Off Broadway in New York City and Miller hired a theatre agent. He left the tour bus behind and worked Off Broadway and in regional theatres for a couple of years.

By 1991, Miller made his television debut as a guest star on "Murphy Brown." Since then, he has stayed in Los Angeles, acting for film and TV. His film credits include The Truman Show, Friday After Next, The Family Man, and After the Sunset. His guest star roles for television include "Deadwood," "Curb Your Enthusiasm," "Six Feet Under," "Boston Legal," "Las Vegas," "Everybody Loves Raymond," and "Cold Case."

Back to school

Miller has an incredible career, and he did it all without a degree. But something was missing in his life.

"A couple of years ago, my daughter, Caitlin, started thinking about college," he says. He realized that if he finished his degree it would send a strong message about the value of education to his kids. Miller contacted UMD about finishing up his degree, and learned that he needed to finish a science class and a language class.

Miller enrolled in classes in California. On the night he took his first geology test, Caitlin and his son Owen were waiting at the door to hear his grade. "Luckily, I got an 'A'," chuckles Miller. "That's when I realized my kids were watching every move I made."

His second class was in Spanish and on that first test he scored a "C." His son's response was: "What happened, man?" Miller cranked it up and got an "A" in the class.

"I did it for my kids, that's the bottom line," he says. "You can make it in life without a diploma, but a college degree gives you options. [So that's why] I came back and graduated in my cap and gown."

Life as a character actor

In 1996 Miller played the part of a sergeant and got a flattop haircut. His agent gave him one of the best pieces of advice he ever received, to keep the haircut and get a new publicity picture. Miller has been working steady ever since. The flattop haircut resonated with casting directors. They could envision him playing a wide variety of parts.

"I'm a character actor," Miller says. "The character guy is the supporting actor. I like it because it gives me anonymity. I get fun parts, the best lines, and sometimes I do comedy. Every part is completely out of the ordinary."

Things are changing slightly for Miller, with the HBO show "Big Love," which is about Utah Mormans and polygamy. "I've got a regular contract now. I am not a guest, and my name is in the front titles," says Miller, who plays the part of Don Embry, best friends with the show's protagonist, Bill Hendrickson, played by Bill Paxton. "My part is fairly busy, although I'm still considered a supporting actor," says Miller.